Vatican calls for creative ways to protect elderly from loneliness

A resident of Mount Carmel Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Manchester, N.H., is shown speaking with a member of the staff in this recent photo. Officials at this Catholic nursing home and others around the U.S. are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with restrictions for elderly residents. (CNS photo/courtesy Mt. Carmel Rehabilitation & Nursing Center) 

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Local churches and individuals must do more to help and to protect the elderly from loneliness and infection during the coronavirus pandemic, a Vatican office said.

"We must devote new energies to defend them from this storm, just as each of us has been protected and cared for in the small and large storms of our lives," said a message released April 7 by the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, which is led by U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell.

While much is already being done by priests, parishes, families and volunteers, "the gravity of the moment calls all of us to do more," it said.

The World Health Organization's European office said April 2 that more than 95% of those who have died of COVID-19 in Europe were over 60 years of age. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said older adults and people with underlying health problems appear to be almost twice as likely as younger, healthier people to develop serious problems from the virus; however, younger adults are not immune and they, too, can suffer serious problems.

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One area of critical concern, the dicastery said, is the plight of the elderly living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

"We hear terrible news about their conditions every day and thousands of people have already lost their lives," in part, because there are so many at-risk people concentrated in one place and because of problems with procuring personal protective equipment for residents and staff.

In other circumstances, however, the current crisis is the result of abandonment "from afar" when it comes to not providing enough assistance and therapeutic care for the elderly, the dicastery added.

"It is necessary to clarify that saving the lives of the elderly who live within residential homes or who are alone or sick, is a priority as much as saving any other person," the message said.

"If it is true that the coronavirus is more lethal when it encounters a debilitated body, in many cases the previous pathology is loneliness," it said.

"It is no coincidence that we are witnessing the death, in terrible proportions and ways, of many people who live far from their families, and in truly debilitating and disheartening conditions of solitude," the message said.

For this reason, it is critical for people to do everything possible to address the problem of abandonment and loneliness, especially when "it could mean saving lives."

People have found creative ways to help even though directly visiting the elderly has been severely restricted or forbidden, it said. Initiatives have included: calls, videos, voice messaging and even letters addressed to those who are alone; home deliveries of food and medicine; and priests making visits to dispense the sacraments.

But individuals and local churches can do much more, it said, with their prayers and by curing "the disease of loneliness" as well as creating “solidarity networks and much more.”

"Faced with the scenario of a generation hit so severely, we have a common responsibility, which stems from the awareness of the invaluable value of every human life and from gratitude to our parents and grandparents, it said.

"So, let us join in prayer for grandparents and the elderly around the world," the dicastery said. "Let us gather around them with our thoughts and hearts, and when possible, let's act, so that they are not alone."


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